Title: The Grey
Genre(s): Action, Adventure, Drama
Director(s): Joe Carnahan
Release Year: 2012
Rotten Tomatoes: 79%
Following the releases of The Phantom Menace and Batman Begins, a new light was cast on actor Liam Neeson; no longer was he simply a well-respected actor known for his starring roles in powerful dramas. No, a new door had opened for the actor, prompting an entirely new era for him as well as an unexpected career boost. Neeson, then in his early 50’s, was approached with numerous scripts and roles in big-budget Hollywood films, culminating to the release of the Besson-penned action hit Taken. While the film itself was a mostly forgettable slab of flashy, kinetic action, it cemented his status as a newfound action hero; at age 56, Neeson had become a bonafide badass. Everyone took note and from there, the man who once played Oskar Schindler in an Academy-Award nominated performance was now pummeling people’s faces in as a swift, vengeful man with nothing to lose. Who knew?
Four years have passed since Taken‘s release and many studios are still riding off of this sudden emergence, tailoring mindless action scripts for the man or fine-tuning the marketing to present a seemingly more immediate, chaotic film. As a result, getting excited for a new Liam Neeson action extravaganza is becoming harder and harder. Joe Carnahan’s latest film, The Grey, falls in the latter category and was initially shown off as a bloodbath between Neeson and a pack of rabid wolves, prompting many to avoid it and just as many to rush to theaters. Unlike Unknown and The A-Team, his last collaboration with the actor, Carnahan’s The Grey is surprisingly powerful, emotionally-resonant and equally thrilling. It was also a prey to its horrid marketing campaign, inviting blood-thirsty action aficionados to see a pensive, surprisingly bleak survival tale. It’s a shame seeing as Carnahan has finally concocted a film that’s both sophisticated and just as visceral.
Neeson portrays Ottway, a huntsman working on an Alaskan oil reserve. He specializes in protecting the workers and making the site safer by removing it of any wolves or carnivorous mammals. As Ottway and the team prepare to head back home following the completion of their work up North, their plane intercepts a vicious blizzard and crashes in the middle of the cold desert. Stranded with no tools of use or food, this team of 7 must band together and find a way out of the wolf-occupied forestry of Alaska in order to survive another day. The story, while basic enough, is given a heart and soul through Neeson’s frail shell of a man, presenting the viewer with a haunting look within his mind. The psychological machinations of the character really help ground the madness and carnage that surrounds Ottway and his team of impulsive oil workers. This also makes the film feel less like an action film and more akin to a dramatic tale of survival, bringing Robert Zemeckis’ Cast Away to mind on numerous occasions.
In The Grey, no one is happy. Even the most fleeting moments of joy are punctuated by an ever-present sense of dread. Who better to illustrate a broken, emotionally unstable man than Liam Neeson. The past few years have shown the actor play numerous sorrowful characters, often mirroring his tragic personal life to a chilling degree, and The Grey presents Ottway as a man with nothing left to live for. It’s a chilling performance and easily one of Neeson’s best in years. The rest of the cast fares quite well too, presenting serviceable secondary characters thanks to a fairly solid script. While it’s not perfect and could benefit from a few tighter spots, it’s a welcome return to form for Carnahan, whose gritty crime thriller Narc seems further and further away. He infuses his film with a cold, suffocating air, making even the lushest of while landscapes seem deadly. The wolves are essentially its pawns, pursuing its prey and striking viciously. It’s philosophical agenda is surprising as well, especially in a film of its nature. Carnahan raises many questions of survival and life through the use of increasingly bleak scenarios, including whether or not one has lived life to the fullest degree. It’s a welcome addition that, while not fully developed or seamlessly sewed-in, makes the film resonate more as a whole.
Without giving anything away, the film’s powerful finale and its wolves have been criticized by many for its abrupt nature and lack of realism in its untamed creatures. If anything, the wolves only serve as yet another allegory to death; the fact that they seem one step ahead of the humans in most of its scenarios is generally irrelevant. If the cold or lack of food won’t kill them, then the wolves will. At its core, The Grey is a gritty tale of survival and showcases a group’s final push towards getting back home. This is a film book-ended by equally emotional ends and a thrilling, harrowing plot. It truly is a shame that the film’s studio took an easy way out and masqueraded the film as nothing more than a brainless, ridiculous action film as it packs a surprisingly potent dramatic punch thanks to Neeson and Carnahan’s great chemistry in front and behind the camera. Don’t let the ads fool you; The Grey is much more than the sum of its parts.